Former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy made the point this summer: More teams in the Eastern Conference pose serious threats to the Heat than in any of LeBron James’ previous three seasons here.
Other analysts voiced similar views.
To be sure, the Indiana Pacers loom as a major obstacle in late May.
But otherwise, the Heat’s other potential challengers look more diminished than dominant, more meek than menacing.
The Chicago Bulls’ chances of seriously pushing the Heat likely evaporated with Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury.
The ballyhooed Brooklyn Nets, at 4-11, have been a $101 million debacle, though their best player, Deron Williams, has missed time with an ankle injury.
The Knicks, at 3-11, have been $87 million underachievers.
Even teams that bolstered their rosters for a run at the sixth through eighth seeds, such as Detroit and Cleveland, have disappointed.
What’s more, the Pacers (14-1) and Heat (12-3 and winners of eight in a row) are the only Eastern Conference teams with winning records.
So wasn’t the East supposed to be better than this?
“I’m extremely surprised,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “But it’s OK with me. I thought it was pretty much going to be a battle for positions one through four. It still could pan out that way.”
Even though it’s just a month into the season, it’s almost as if a Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Finals seems inevitable, barring injury.
“I think Indiana has a better team [than Miami] but there are two things I worry about,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said. “They turn the ball over, and that won’t show until they’re under the gun [in the playoffs]. Also, Lance Stephenson is so talented, but he does some crazy stuff sometimes.”
ESPN analyst and former Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo also said last week that the Pacers are better than the Heat.
So what else could derail the Heat besides Indiana, injury or the Western Conference champion?
There’s the exhaustion theory, the one articulated by TNT analyst Steve Kerr during the summer when he predicted that Miami will not three-peat because of the physical and mental toll of playing so many playoff games over a four-year period.
Kerr speaks from experience, having played on Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams that won three championships in a row from 1996 to 1998.
The Heat’s reaction to Kerr’s theory has run the gamut, from dismissiveness to an acknowledgment that this journey will be more difficult than anything previously.
“I mean: Who comes up with that?” Spoelstra said of that theory early in the training camp. “Our competition is trying to drive that narrative. We have a highly motivated group of guys. If you don’t have passionate guys, then mental fatigue” could be a factor.
Point guard Mario Chalmers also disputes Kerr’s notion: “I don’t buy that at all. Steve Kerr did it, so why can’t we do it? We’re a very strong team. We added two great pieces in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. We have a lot more pieces to keep us from wearing down.”
Said swingman James Jones: “We don’t buy that. They may be speaking from experience. But that’s their experience. We really don’t care. We know how mentally engaged we are.”
It’s very early, but the Heat has shown no signs of fatigue or malaise so far, and Spoelstra has kept players fresh by playing his stars fewer minutes and making ample use of his bench.
LeBron James is averaging a career-low 35.2 minutes, down from 37.9 last season and 39.6 in his career. Chris Bosh is averaging 28.5 minutes, by far the lowest of his career and down from 33.2 last season. And besides sitting out three games to rest his knees, Dwyane Wade is averaging more a minute per game less than last season (33.6), which is the second lowest of his career.
“That’s extremely important,” Bosh said. “Our second group has done a magnificent job this year and made our jobs a little easier. It’s making it easier on us not having to play a lot, especially early.”
It helps that Spoelstra has continued to get good work from his bench, including Michael Beasley, who had 17 points and 9 rebounds in a season-high 25 minutes against Cleveland on Wednesday.
“We’re lucky to have the kid,” Wade said. “A lineup with him gives us firepower. He’s been better defensively.”
Beasley offered an amusing explanation for his renewed commitment to grabbing rebounds: “[Chris Andersen] and Chris [Bosh] need help. And I ain’t got nothing better to do.”